General Motors chief executive Mary Barra has vowed to change the company’s culture and has testified
before Congress that GM has taken steps to increase internal transparency and information sharing. This commitment follows a report exposing that GM discouraged raising or sharing safety concerns. The company commissioned the report, because GM failed to recall thousands of cars with defective ignition switches for eleven years.
Similar calls for culture change have followed the Veterans Health Administration’s wait-for-care and numbers fudging scandal. President Obama has remarked that the VA needs a culture change so that “bad news gets surfaced quickly.” Not content to wait for culture change, House and Senate negotiators today announced a $17 billion plan that, among other provisions, provides money to lease clinics so that veterans can get treatment outside the VA’s system.
Culture change emphasizes the result without a way to get there. It’s like telling a poor person to become rich. Culture change has become a common prescription from leaders, pundits and management gurus. The prescription often fails, because the shift originates with executives without detail, discussion or broad buy-in. Meantime, the organizational structure stays the same.
The Bounty Effect has hit GM and the VA. As I describe in my new book, The Bounty Effect happens when exigent circumstances compel businesses, government and organizations to change their structures from command-and-control to collaborative. The solution for these organizations is to seize the opportunity The Bounty Effect provides and fundamentally change their structures so that people can spontaneously engage one another, share information and participate in decisions regardless of level, role or region. This will cost far less than $17 billion.
Many organizations, including GM and the VA, still operate with a structure that has barely changed since the Industrial Age. This obsolete structure based on command-and-control promotes hierarchy and internal competition plus rewards information hoarding, secrecy, and cutting corners. GM and the VA also share a need to go through channels. This inhibits the participation and information flow critical to Information Age organizations.
Safety concerns apparently never reached GM’s chief executive, nor did problems with scheduling reporting systems apparently flow to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. And both organizations apparently discouraged people from sharing concerns. VA supervisors often retaliated against workers who raised valid complaints, according to a White House report.
GM chief executive Mary Barra has said that culture change must be leader-led. Barra has also promoted a program called “speak up for safety” plus three GM “core values.” These are “the customer is our compass, relationships matter, and individual excellence is crucial.” But a leader’s words have modest impact without structural change. Yes, GM has added safety investigators, increased safety data mining, and created a vice president of safety position. Nevertheless, none of these actions will reduce information hoarding and internal competition. None of these actions will change GM’s structure from command-and-control to collaborative.
When an organization rewards obsolete behavior, change dies on the vine despite a leader’s mandate. If hoarding and hiding information or failing to act on knowledge results in a raise or a promotion, people are unlikely to share information or take action. Pushing safety issues at GM was seemingly no path to promotion. VA managers reportedly kept patient names off the official waiting list, because bonuses depended on concealing information. Recognition and reward systems in obsolete organizational structures often reinforce bad behavior and the status quo regardless of culture change efforts. The same flawed practices and processes that encourage internal competition and information hoarding lead companies to compromise safety and fudge numbers.
Changing the VA’s structure will enhance transparency and efficiency while saving money rather than costing the $17 billion Congress is authorizing. Changing GM’s structure will ensure that people across the organization share and act on critical information. And changing the structure of GM and the VA will accomplish what many leaders and pundits are recommending: culture change.